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    1900s Hampton photos illustrate students at work

    I had learned of Frances Benjamin Johnston’s photos after finding a ticket stub at auction for the 1900 Paris International Exposition. She had been commissioned by Hampton Institute to photograph the progress of a school that had been founded shortly after slavery was abolished.

    Now, before me at auction was a hard-back catalog of 44 of those photographs from an exhibit mounted in 1966 by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The catalog was titled “The Hampton Album,” and on its cover was a photo of students repairing a stairwell at the home of the school’s treasurer.

    Johnston, a white woman who was one of the country’s first female professional photographers, shot the pictures during the winter of 1899-1900 at what was then called the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia.

    A dress-making class at Hampton Institute.

    A dress-making class at Hampton Institute.

    The “Exhibit of American Negroes” at the Paris expo was spearheaded by W.E.B. DuBois and Thomas J. Calloway, a lawyer who was a special agent for the exhibit, with assistance from African American historian Daniel A.P. Murray at the Library of Congress and Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

    Its aim, DuBois said, was to show “an honest straightforward exhibit of a small nation of people, picturing their life and development without apology or gloss, and above all made by themselves. In a way this marks an era in the history of the Negroes of America.”

    The exhibit was housed in a right-corner section in the American Pavilion in a large building on the Seine River. It consisted of photographs, maps, books, musical compositions, poetry and much more on the culture of African Americans.

    "Hampton Album" cover with photos of students building the staircase at the treasurer's house.

    “The Hampton Album” cover with photos of students building the staircase at the treasurer’s house. This was likely the home of Alexander Purves, who held that position at the time.

    “From Hampton there is an especially excellent series of photographs illustrating the Hampton idea of ‘teaching by doing,'” DuBois wrote in 1900. Hampton was one of five black schools represented. Here’s Calloway’s report on the overall exhibit.

    Johnston’s 159 works “consisted of original photographs only; there was no space in the American Pavilion for actual examples of the manual and domestic arts which Hampton professed,” according to the catalog. She was the only woman invited to a photographic assembly held at the same time, and spoke in French about American artist-photographers.

    Her Hampton photos won a Grand Prix award as part of the “Negro” exhibit, which also won a Grand Prix. Her photos of African American students at public schools in Washington, DC, won a Gold Medal.

    Both the Hampton and DC photos were part of a larger undertaking from 1899 to 1902 that included photos at Tuskegee, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania (criticized for taking Native American children from their homes to be “Americanized”), among others.

    Self-portrait of Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1895. Photo from the Library of Congress.

    Self-portrait of Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1896. Photo from the Library of Congress.

    By the 1880s, Johnston had gained a national reputation as a skilled photographer. She was born in West Virginia, spent some of her childhood years in Washington, and studied in Paris and at the Smithsonian Institution. She provided photos for articles in several magazines, including Harper’s Weekly and Ladies Home Journal. She was employed by a news photo syndicate, and had access to several presidential administrations as an unofficial photographer.

    Soon, she became an art and commercial photographer, her works shown at galleries in New York and Washington. Johnston also wrote books and articles on photography with her photos as illustrations. Over 60 years, she was known for her portraits, documentaries, and news and architectural photography. She also shot historical buildings in the South. She died in 1952 at age 88 in New Orleans.

    At Hampton, Johnston was commissioned by the then-president to take 150 photos of the school, according to the catalog. Her subjects were posed and almost never looked into the camera, which some have criticized because the photos seem to deny the humanity of the subjects. The students appear stilted like mannequins in the pictures.

    "Class in American History." This is a photo of Louis Firetail, a Sioux-Crow Creek Indian, in tribal clothing.

    Chief Louis Firetail, a Sioux-Crow Creek Indian, speaks to a class in American History.

    Johnston’s photos also included Native American students, who were accepted at Hampton in a program that lasted until 1923. The first of these students arrived in 1878 from a prison in St. Augustine, FL, where they had been detained after the Red River War in Texas aimed at relocating several tribes. The aim of the Hampton’s founder Samuel C. Armstrong – as was the common thinking of the day – was to primarily strip them of their culture with an eye toward assimilation.

    Here are other photos from the catalog:


    Football team at the school.


    "A Hampton Graduate at home."

    A Hampton graduate and his family in their middle-class two-story home.


    "A Hampton Graduate's home."

    The home of a Hampton graduate.


    "Indian Orchestra."

    An orchestra of Native American students.


    "Physics. The Screw as applied to the cheese press."

    Hampton students in a physics class working with cheese presses.


    "Agriculture. Plant life. Study of plants or a 'plant society.'"

    Students in an agriculture class studying plants.


    "Post graduate class 1900."

    A post-graduate class in 1900.


    A student serving dinner.

    A young woman serves dinner.


    Hampton students in a shoe-making class.

    Students in a shoe-making class.


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